Review by Fiona Duncan, published 4th January 2009.
What's your worst nightmare? Mine, at least when it comes to hotels, is "communal dining". The very phrase sends shivers up my spine. Years ago, when we began compiling the Charming Small Hotel Guides, many of the personally run hotels and guesthouses that we sought to highlight employed this method of feeding their guests. Sometimes it worked; often it didn't.
After one particularly horrendous experience, I vowed never to submit again. The host, thunder-faced, and hostess, brittle and taught, dined in agonising silence, as did the miserable guests, until I could stand it no longer and ventured to the host what a lovely place the romantic old house must be for weddings. "Possibly," he answered, pushing back his chair to leave the room and glaring menacingly at his wife, "It's certainly a damn good place for a DIVORCE".
It's a measure of my interest in Eshott Hall that I was prepared to face the potential horrors of communal dining again (although the option of a separate table set up in one of the sitting rooms is available on request). "It was the first thing I was going to change," David Sanderson, just two years out of university, told me when I arrived, "but since I came home a year ago to run Eshott Hall" (his parents, Ho and Margaret, are the owners) "I've seen how brilliantly it works and kept it up".
"More's the pity" and "you must be mad" were my unspoken ripostes. Even the news that one couple joining us were locals returning just for dinner because they had enjoyed their previous experience so much only made me decide that the couple in question should be avoided at all costs.
Needless to say, that lovely pair, Roy and Daphne, are my new best friends. I'm not making this up: the evening was a joy from start to finish, with masses of laughter and no awkward pauses. We came from different worlds but found so much in common. Most of my companions were from the north and their innate warmth, which southerners like myself so conspicuously lack, made the evening come alive.
Helped, immeasurably, by the gentle atmosphere the Sandersons have created, by Margaret's superb cooking – smoked salmon blinis, beautifully presented; perfect roast beef with horseradish mash; pavlova with berries, followed by local cheeses and accompanied by excellent wines – and by the beautiful, and beautifully decorated house in which we were gathered. Weddings are held here: I can think of nowhere more romantic to marry than on the staircase beneath the stunning ruby red William Morris stained glass window.
It's impossible to pigeonhole Eshott Hall (although if you know Moccas Court in Herefordshire you will know just what to expect). It's a private home, run on house-party lines, with the luxury of a serious hotel. Your mobile is unlikely to work, there's no television in the lovely bedrooms and no door keys, just the house, the grounds – arboretum, walled garden, Victorian fernery, red squirrels. Anyone attracted by these elements and by the possibility of making new friends will leave contented. I did.
Eshott, Morpeth (01670 787777; www.eshott.co.uk). Doubles from £128, including breakfast. Access difficult for guests with disabilities. Nearest station; Alnmouth (nationalexpresseastcoast.com).